Taking On My Very First Hackathon

by Jun 23, 2015

Siân Hughes talks about her first experience in a hackathon. “What is a hackathon?!” we hear you cry… well it’s an all day and night session with the aim to create an end product in a 48 hours of course! Read on to find out more.

What do you think of when you hear of a ‘hackathon’? If you’re like me you would imagine a room full of computer programmers with their headphones on and their heads down to produce a new piece of software/hardware in 48 hours (no pressure then!). Add in junk food and no sleep and it gives you an overall vision of what I would imagine it to entail. Well, if you imagined the same scenario as I did, you would be correct. So envision all of this, with the addition of little old me (a designer not programmer), and you get my very first hackathon.

So, I guess you’re thinking ‘why would someone give up a weekend of cocktails and lie-ins for what sounds like your boss telling you that you have a pitch in two days, under pressure, to produce a product to sell into the client?’ Well, I can tell you it’s not this. After completing my first hackathon, it was so much more.

With a whole range of workshops and talks from a wide range of industry professionals from ‘The Psychology of Risk’ to ‘Help make decision making easier’ and ‘Nudge people in the right direction at the right time’, additional mentoring and networking, and let’s not forget free food and beer (to my delight one of the meals was a hummus bros take away). It was a weekend where I learnt a lot, gained invaluable experience and also had lots of fun.

The start line

We arrived about 6:30pm on Friday after dropping our things off at the hotel for registration… yes I did the glamping thing and got a hotel instead of taking a sleeping bag and spending the night sleeping on the floor! After a brief introduction, a few talks and beers (wahoo) it was time for idea pitches. This was the point where everyone who had a “big idea” had two minutes to tell the audience the basis of the concept and what skills they needed for their team.

Following this there was a ‘make a match’ session, which was half an hour where everyone went around talking to the idea generators about what they thought they could offer to the group. Basically speed dating on a professional basis.

Hackathon sians team

9pm came and the coding starts

Even though my team already had a big idea, we had been advised to spend the first hour or so talking and discussing about what exactly we needed to do and how we would actually complete it in the time we had. This is when the pressure started. You could hear the volume of the room increase and the machines starting up. I had packed a few jumpers in the daft thought that the venue would get cold, but forgetting how much heat over 100 laptops can produce, wowsers!

As the first night went on we finalised our idea. The other designer and I started to mock up the main pages and elements, while the developers started looking through the API’s (Application Program Interface) we had access to in order to get the data we would need. At around 2am (early on the Saturday morning) the developers in my team went off to get some sleep so that they would be refreshed for the next morning to get up and do a full day of hard coding, while myself and the other designer worked through until 6am finalising the designs and preparing the UX (User Experience). You may think staying up till 6am, when you’re not out dancing the night away, is crazy, but that was nothing compared to some of the “hardcore” hackerthoners. Some worked through the night until they had pumped out all their energy and couldn’t work anymore. We then found them napping on yoga mats, trying to get a bit of shut eye next to their machines instead of going off to a comfy hotel room… eek! This was not me. I decided to call it a day when I looked at the designs and found I had written “I’m on the edge” instead of inserting some Lorem Ipsum. There’s always a breaking point where tiredness kicks in and this was mine.

Hackathon room

Saturday’s activities

Two hours sleep, a shower, fresh make-up and clothes, a croissant and a black coffee later we were ready to go. The day’s activities ironically started with an outside yoga class to wake everyone up and then we were back in there, in the hackathon arena.

The Saturday bared the same resemblance to the night before; people had their heads down with headphones in, fully integrated into the project and their ideas, but every now and again the odd hacker from an opposing team would wander over, talk about what you were doing and tell you about their project. All the while talks and workshops would take place behind the scenes. In the evening, whilst our other team designer and developers carried on working on the concept into the night, I set myself aside to write the first draft of our presentation. We had three minutes to demonstrate our idea, explain what we had done, how it worked and how it would benefit the consumer. The main aim of this was to reveal the product, but to also express why our idea stood out from the other 32 teams.

After staring at Keynote for far too long and drinking copious amounts of coffee, the other designer and I decided to retire to our rooms around 2am and as we did so we passed a similar scene to the night before, where other teams set out their yoga mats to lie by their machines ready for action at any point.

The end is near…

Sunday morning came and with this we made the final adjustments to make sure everything was working. Then the presentations commenced.

I was amazed. What our team had created and brought to life in 48 hours was great, in my (tired) eyes, but what others had managed to produces was truly incredible. From apps that kept you safe on your way home from a night out, to hardware that detects pollution on the streets so you can plan your run and so much more. In the end the €10,000 prize (yes there’s gold at the end of the rainbow) went to a concept called Calm, an iWatch app that detects stress and notifies the user on ways to stay calm in day to day life. The team was amazing and they rightly won the prize, even after their live demonstration of the app showed they were not so calm, but actually quite nervous on stage (it was nice to see that other people get nervous presenting too!)

Hackathon winners

The winners with their prize money

Two days later and I was still trying to catch up on my beauty sleep, but regardless of this I learnt a lot about coding and API’s, saw some great ideas become amazing apps, worked with new people, pushed and challenged myself in mental endurance, learnt about project management and designed under extreme pressure. On top of this I ate and drank a lot (always a bonus) and also had lots of fun! Hopefully, when I have fully recovered, I will have a go at another hackathon, there is already talk about us planning the next event, watch this space. So if you’re a designer, programmer, developer, UX, ideas generator or just interested in this sort a thing, I would recommend you give it ago… and I may see you there!

BeMyApp organised the event I took part in (visit their site here), but there are loads of other organisations that hold similar meet up’s all over London.

I would like to give a special thanks to all the team at BeMyApp for organising the event, all the sponsors, and of course my hard working team; Naomi Seah – Junior Designer at OgilvyOne, Ainhoa Moya – Junior Web Developer at Etecture@Ogilvy and Christian Konig and Andre Ruffert – Developers from Etecture in Germany. An unforgettable experience and I hope we call all work together again in the future.


Words by Siân Hughes. Visit Siân’s on Twitter @sianlhughes.

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